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Working for a living

When most of us will spend most our lives at a job we may or may not enjoy, it seems odd that there isn't more discussion as to why we work. And I don't mean because we have to pay the rent, but why do we work the way we do? Working does help us to pay the rent. That much is clear. And that's why pretty much all of us have jobs. But coupled with all of us having a job comes a whole list of issues: overwork, debt, consumerism, problems of technology, the environment, traffic problems, fast food lunches, missing your kids soccer game, the list goes on. Suddenly the nature of "work" or a "job" becomes quite important.

But what is the nature of work? And what does it mean for a society whose people, it seems, do nothing but work? For most of us to work means to be part of a business whose goal of course is profit. Having toiled some years in retail, I can attest to this pursuit of profit and all the things that go along with it. Here are a few of those things: One. The cult of efficiency. Spend any amount of time in any number of workplaces concerned with the bottom line and you will quickly hear the same things over and over again. The goals of efficiency, productivity, and being competitive, not to mention others, are all bandied about as hallmarks.

We must be more efficient. We have to be more competitive. The goal of these of course is to drive sales. What is the goal of driving sales? That depends. Sometimes there is talk of more hours for employees. Get in the right company or into management and there may be a form of profit sharing.

Be good at driving sales and you will get promoted. You will make money for your shareholders and maybe they will open another store somewhere. But from the perspective of the person on the floor, it's just more of the same. We have to be even more efficient, even more productive than we were last year or yesterday.

There doesn't seem to be any real goal. Two. The opiate of fun. Where I work employees are continuously told and encouraged to have fun. This is also one of the mandates of the managers: make the workplace fun! This is echoed and reinforced in the corporate lingo which is invariably positive and upbeat. and always ends in an exclamation mark! All to suggest excitement! Aren't you excited to work here? Isn't it fun? All of this has lead me to wonder if fun isn't the new opiate of the masses.

Marx was afraid that religion would dull people's awareness of reality. Now I suspect fun serves the same purpose. I have nothing against fun. Yes, fun makes the day go faster. Yes, fun is.

well, fun. But "fun" distracts you from what you are actually doing. "Fun" prevents contemplation. You are not thinking when you are having fun. Is what I am doing that distasteful that I need it to be covered with a thin veneer of 'fun' to make it bearable? Do I really want to do this? Does what I do have any real value? Have I not done this same task a 1000 times already? These questions dissipate when one is having fun. Three.

The tiny box. Employees are encouraged to think about the "big picture", to "think outside the box". This is a bit tricky when everything has been scripted ahead of time: from everything to how we answer the phone, to how we lay out merchandise on the floor, to continually being told to be passionate, excited, to have fun, to being encouraged to adopt corporate speak: "best practices", "centres of excellence", "touch base", ad nauseum. Generally speaking, it is a very small picture, and an even smaller box that seems to be implied. Any creativity that is allowed is generally banal or adolescent.

True creativity, which is the hallmark of being human, is inefficient and unpredictable, neither of which are wanted by the production process. These principles, and others like them, have, in my experience, long dominated the workplace. But worse, they have escaped the workplace to permeate as well the world outside. The philosopher Hannah Arendt distinguished between "labour" and "work". The first she identified as repetitive, machine like, usually associated with only reproducing your material existence, and the product of labour is quickly consumed.

Work, on the other hand, produces objects that last. Think of the phrase, 'work of art'. We don't say 'labour of art'. A work of art lasts through the ages. Work produces the world around us.

We are born into a world already there, and we die leaving a world behind us. The notions of the cult of efficiency, the opiate of fun, the tiny box, and the idea of labour, have permeated our world. We live in a readily disposable, heavily rationalized, superficial world. If we are to keep our world, make it liveable again, we must begin again to work. We must allow for creativity, which is not rational or efficient.

We must allow for time and quality, which might not help the bottom line. We have to stop worrying about fun and speaking like everybody else. We deserve it and our children deserve it. Copyright (c) 2007 Kirk Somers.

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